Saturday, December 30, 2006

My preview of 2007

There are a lot of New Year predictions on the blogosphere today, so here is my analysis of what the political year ahead will bring, first published in this morning's Newcastle Journal.

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Over the years, the job of writing this annual look ahead to what the next 12 months may have in store politically has involved a certain amount of crystal ball gazing.

But it's a bit different this time round. The key political event of 2007 is already more or less set in stone.

At some as yet indeterminate point in the next six months, Tony Blair will finally step down as Prime Minister, almost certainly after chalking-up ten years in 10 Downing Street this May.

Speculation about the political year ahead therefore really boils down to two questions: who will replace him, and what kind of Government will that successor seek to lead?

Much has already been written about the likely leadership denouement, but there are, to my mind, four basic scenarios as to how it could all pan out.

The first is the one that most Labour supporters in their heart of hearts still long for - a "stable and orderly transition."

In this chain of events, Mr Blair announces his departure date, endorses Gordon Brown as his successor, forestalls any serious Cabinet challenge, and the sunlit uplands ensue.

It could still happen, but such is the fragility of the Blair-Brown relationship - and the visceral hatred between the two camps - that the odds must be against.

The second, and to my mind more likely scenario, then, is that Mr Brown wins the leadership, but has to fight a nasty and potentially divisive battle to get it.

It is hard, at this stage, to predict where the challenge will come from. Both David Miliband and Alan Johnson have ruled themselves out in what look like unequivocal terms.

But as I have said more than once in this context, politics abhors a vacuum, and if Mr Brown appears at any point to be beatable, then someone, somewhere will step up to the mark.

In my view, Home Secretary John Reid remains both overwhelmingly the most likely challenger, and the one most likely to force the Chancellor into a serious battle.

Which neatly brings us to the third scenario, in which Mr Brown is not only forced into a serious contest, but actually manages to lose it.

It could surely only happen if a large section of the Parliamentary Labour Party and the party membership became convinced that he could not secure a fourth election victory.

The key to that is the polls, and in particular Mr Brown's personal ratings when up against Tory leader David Cameron.

If these were to go into freefall, it is just conceivable that the Labour Party may reluctantly persuade itself that it was time to look elsewhere.

Perhaps the most intriguing scenario, though, is the fourth and final one, in which Mr Brown was not even a candidate in the leadership election at all.

It would require the intervention of a deus ex machina - either a huge political scandal in which he was implicated, or some personal family or health problem serious enough to force his withdrawal.

In those circumstances, the field would open up to perhaps six or seven candidates, including some of those currently pledged to support the Chancellor.

Messrs Miliband, Johnson, Reid and Hain would be there or thereabouts, but the dark horse could be Jack Straw, who would be seen by many as a natural compromise choice.

I did wonder whether to add a fifth scenario, in which Mr Blair does not stand down at all.

In terms of sheer comedy value, it almost merits inclusion, but not on any serious political criteria.

There was a time when the party, staring at a huge poll deficit and the prospect of a Cameron victory, might have turned and implored him to save them - but no more.

As one senior MP said a while back: "The Labour Party will let him do his ten years. If he tries to go on a day longer than that, they will kill him."

As for what sort of Government Mr Blair's successor will lead, Mr Brown for one has already made clear there will be a renewed emphasis on both constitutional reform and social justice if he takes over.

In Mr Blair's eyes, these are the kind of ideas that "butter no parsnips," but a period of decent, steady government free from scandal may be just what Labour needs.

But if there is one thing about which most commentators - and even some of the candidates - now agree, it is that it will have to be a new government.

Such is the low level of public esteem in which Mr Blair and his administration are now held that "continuity" is now no longer an option.

For beyond the timeframe of the next 12 months, Labour faces the prospect of what will surely be its most difficult election campaign since 1992.

The situation is not beyond recall. Mr Cameron too faces difficult challenges over the next year, not least the task of producing some actual policies in place of what so far has amounted to little more than mood music.

In short, the Tory leader remains vulnerable to the charge of all style and no substance, and it could yet all come good for Labour if it gets the leadership transition right.

But first, the party has to do what it really should have done a long time ago - and wave farewell to Mr Blair.

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3 comments:

RedEye said...

The real surprise is more likely to come in the deputy leadership election, namely Jon Cruddas winning it.

Ellee said...

Jon Cruddas has been raising his profile significantly and is even blogging. I certainly believe he has political aspirations too.

I would like to see Tories spending more time campaigning in the north, it shouldn't be written off, as well as marginals.

Paul, Happy New Year to you and your family.

skipper said...

Interesting speculations. The People-not my usual Sunday reading- says they have learned Balls will be Chancellor and Hain probably Home secretary with the 'postie' as deputy PM.